When Coach Keith Ferrara got his first university strength and conditioning job, he literally had to build his program—and facility—out of a storage closet. Read on to discover the six essential steps he took to successfully build a collegiate sports performance program from scratch.
By Joel Smith
The best athletes in any team sport are almost always not the best in the weight room (at least the way the weight room is classically quantified, via 1-rep maxes, etc.). How many times do we need to hear this from great coaches (strength coaches included here) before we start to believe it?
It is important to be strong and fast enough to play the game, absolutely! Even as this is true, absolute strength is really not difficult to build safely in the grand scheme of things. Progressive coaches scour the training landscape for things that will transfer better to what actually happens on the field of play, and we find things like robust running, perception and action, and combative movement training (grappling and tumbling), as well as a growing interest in motor learning among physical preparation professionals.
Here is a little background. As a track coach at Wilmington College, I wore the hat of a strength and conditioning coach, where I primarily helped with men’s basketball. To this end, my goal was simply to get everyone to pack as many inches on their vertical jump as possible. I really just viewed physical preparation through the lens of my track and field glasses: the improvement of raw markers and sprinting and jumping as much as I could.
(Sure, lower level athletes often can and do benefit from improving strength and basic power markers on the level of team sport success. Athletes need to be big, strong, and fast enough for the basic standards their sport requires. The confidence that comes with improving a landmark physical marker, such as the ability to dunk a basketball or running under a particular time in the 40-yard dash, is very important for many).
As I transitioned to “strength and conditioning coach,” I immediately focused this lens on skill-sport athletes, frequently measuring things like vertical jump, or perhaps a 10-yard dash. (I still do these tests, I just don’t look at them them as an absolute, but more as a guidepost to show I’m on the right track.)
After a few years, I began to realize that 1RM strength improvements at my level (university athletes) really didn’t seem to make a difference that I could see in sport play results given the athlete was already adequate in this department. On top of this, many athletes who weren’t among the best on the team often found validation by at least regularly hitting good numbers in the weight room. My strongest players were definitely not my best and the lesser players found validation through an emphasis on 1RMs.
Dynamic markers such as sprint and jump ability were closer to what counted in being good on the court, but some of my fastest players have not had winning success. Hearing ideas on how the improvement of speed without a corresponding improvement in technical-tactical ability and the ability to react to opponents (think about a soccer player who got faster, but now just goes off-sides more often; something I heard on a podcast with Dave Tenney) did not lead to better sport results really got my wheels turning
In individual sports, my initial depth of knowledge of track and field biomechanics helped me to steer a track strength program more towards what mattered in track speed and away from what didn’t. Through the years in swimming, I have seen some athletes get globally “stronger” without improving times in the pool, and have been in the process of determining the qualitative reasons for these cases. (On the flip side, I did see my lifting program make a substantial impact on a lot of aquatic athletes).
Finding out the exact “how” of what helped and what didn’t takes more digging than looking at a research study or some sort of quantitative analysis. It takes a deeper observation of the movement patterns athletes utilize in the gym. After over a decade in the field, with time learning from many of the best coaches and their protégés, I have found that the weight room is a place where athletes can improve not just their strength and power, but more importantly for many of those athletes, the patterns by which they move and produce force.The weight room is a place an athlete can improve the patterns by which they move and produce #force, says @JustFlySports. Click To Tweet
I believe that the qualitative element of the “how” when it comes to training an athlete is many times more important than the “what” (as in what exercise to pick or what sets and reps). We live in a world of quantifying every piece of the training program, but we miss many things happening between the numbers. (We also know a pure quantitative driven training program doesn’t work.)
We all know that elite athletes play differently than the bench-warmers, but is there more to just having more “skill” in the game from a general perspective? What did the great multi-sport athlete at your high school have that the other kids didn’t? We know that they can open and close feedback loops quicker than the non-factor players (i.e., they perceive and react better), but what are the mechanisms here? We know that, perhaps most importantly of all, the best players are the most consistent in their performances, while the second-tier competitors may just exhibit flashes of greatness, but then lose the wave of momentum in a game and let it turn into a landslide.
This pattern that results in a great player is found in the mind, and before we start leafing through mental training books, realize that this mind-body connection is trainable in the weight room setting without getting a Ph.D. in sports psychology. This isn’t to downplay traditional mental training at all—I’ve seen it work wonders and I’m a huge believer in visualization, hypnosis, and the gamut of training means that are often tossed to the wayside in an often-superficial approach that pays homage to the idea that “it’s all mental” but then ignores spending real time improving it.
When the attitude of the mind and the movement of the body blend in training, true magic can happen. With what I’ve learned in the last five years as a coach, and particularly this last year, I’ve become more adept at finding ways to make the way we do things better in the gym, and not just finding more exercises or periodization models. Like Jerome Simian and other coaching greats will tell you, “the pattern (of movement) is king.” It all starts there. Ignore the pattern in the gym, and you’ll often find yourself “over-intensifying wrong.”Movement-oriented coaching really isn’t optional for the highest success of those we work with, says @JustFlySports. Click To Tweet
I’ve collected my thoughts on athletic patterning and performance into seven points. They can help you steer your awareness to where mine has gone after learning from enough elite coaches to understand that movement-oriented coaching really isn’t optional for the highest success of those we work with. I’m not saying these ideas can turn a bench-warmer into a starting player, but they can have a profound impact on a team and individual sport athlete alike. These points are not so much hard rules as ideas that you can plug into a variety of exercises and training mediums to expand your own circle of awareness.
Pay Attention to How the Best Athletes Move in Their Sport (and Not Just the Weight Room)
I am a firm believer that answers are found in nature. Scientists and inventors alike have studied animals to get the inspiration for their robots or inventions that mimic movement. In the same manner, I believe that we need to be students of the best competitors in sport. In the realm of human beings, the elite in sports aren’t just “freaks” that we shouldn’t try to emulate because they “cheat the rules” (I believe the “freaks” create the rules when we take a deep look at what they are doing), but rather individuals who we should see as a puzzle to unlock on the level of human movement organization.
How often do we, as physical preparation coaches, spend time watching videos of Olympic lifters or powerlifters compared to watching the best soccer, basketball, tennis, football, swimming, baseball, etc. athletes perform their sport? If you had 100 hours to watch videos to help you better train athletes, would you spend it watching athletes lift weights or athletes playing their sport? We like glancing at videos of, say, a cheetah running in slow motion, but what is it about the cheetah that gives it speed?
When we sit down and watch athletes playing a sport, we tend to start seeing some commonalities.
- The ability to tense and relax muscles rapidly.
- A mastery of breathing, relaxation, and body control in any game situation.
- Good posture and alignment (good posture is relative to the sport).
- Great sense of where one’s body and limbs are in space.
- An ability to react and be creative in the midst of fluctuating circumstances or even circumstances not yet encountered.
- The ability to sense and react to specific patterns faster than one’s opponents.
- Enough force-production capability and body mass to get the job done for their sport.
When we look at tension and relaxation, the epitome may be Bruce Lee’s “one-inch punch.” Any athletic movement is a pure symphony of muscles turning off and on in the proper sequence. Muscles that are on when they shouldn’t be cause slow movements and invite injury. A problem is that the weight room tends to focus on when muscles should be on more often than when they should be off. The performance of simple movements such as oscillatory reps can be a game-changer for athletes who have been on a steady diet of concentric-based lifting for years.
Video 1. The oscillatory isometric split squat (a movement I talk about extensively in “Speed Strength”) is one of many ways to put athletes in situations where their ability to manage muscle tension is assessed.
Watch an elite competitor and, regardless of the game situation, they have mastery, composure, and control of their breathing and physiology. It is this composure that allows great players more consistent play and the ability to be more “clutch” when the game is on the line. The team that is in charge of their breathing and fight-or-flight mechanisms in the last minutes of a game has the advantage.Good posture occurs in context of athletic movements, particular those with a low center of gravity, says @JustFlySports. Click To Tweet
Great athletes have good posture and alignment, which often features a vertical torso in relatively squatted positions. Posture and alignment are important, but it’s hard to say these days what good posture truly is. It’s certainly not standing up ramrod-straight and consciously thinking not to round one’s shoulders forward.
Good posture happens in the context of athletic movements, particularly movements with a low center of gravity. “Squat dexterity” is the product of great posture and timing in a squatted position and is a trademark of the most agile athletes in the game. Good posture is reflexive and happens innately as a result of proper training. (For me, that’s a combination of time spent isometrically in the proper posture with ancillary Postural Restoration Institute work when needed.)
The importance of proprioception and the ability to sense the body in space is well-known, but at the same time, is looked down upon in favor of raw force and a lack of quantification. If we could quantify this skill for athletic performance outcomes (we can quantify it in rehab settings), perhaps we would train it more often.
Pay Attention to the Athlete in the Weight Room and Not Just the Barbell
In the process of coaching, I believe in an “athlete first” model that centers around high-velocity athletic movement (watching an athlete sprint maximally as a “movement screen” is a simple example). This model looks at how the rib cage and spine respond to core athletic movements such as squatting and hinging. It looks at how “ripples”—small subtleties in joint movement—become “waves” in later movement. For example, notice how cheating just a “little bit” in ankle rocker jumps can elicit a much higher jump than being completely strict with the test.
Although it’s easy to take a barbell-oriented way of looking at training, an athlete-oriented strategy that starts with bodyweight mastery is really key. Does an athlete move in a fluid or segmented manner on basic exercises such as a Spiderman push-up? When you give them a cue or instruction, do they over-do the movement around the joint or body part you are cueing (more on internal cues in a bit) or can they make the instruction fit in fluidly with the whole?Instead of focusing on barbells, use an athlete-oriented plan that starts with bodyweight mastery, says @JustFlySports. Click To Tweet
A common misconception I discuss in Speed Strength is to talk about how fast sport movement is, say, sprinting at 10 meters per second, and then talk about how much slower the weight room is, relatively speaking, at say, .8m/s for a squat or 2.75m/s for a quick clean or snatch. Although this is true for the barbell in the gym, it’s not true for the speed that joints move at to produce those barbell speeds. When we look at hip joint extension speeds in an Olympic lift, we can see speeds of 400 degrees per second (DPS) for a full-catch lift and likely around 600 DPS for a fast power clean or high pull, which matches with the hip extension velocity at the sixth step of a sprint.
From a raw barbell speed perspective, things don’t match up, but from a joint perspective, things change. This also helps us to find that point in traditional lifts where we truly can no longer match the joint speeds of sprinting and need to look at other modes and medians of working transferable strength.
Some coaches preach for or against particular lifts in a generalized context, such as “all athletes must (or must not) parallel or deep squat.” The same thing can be said for the hang clean, depth jump, or anything else, and a lot of this comes from pre-existing exercise preferences and biases of the coach. When it comes down to an exercise’s effectiveness, it’s all about how the athlete responds to it, what their sport or event is (and how the lift transfers to the joint-based technical model), what their hip and joint structure allows for, and what their training strategy is.
Be Aware of the Effects of Internal Cues
When we think about instructing an athlete in the weight room, or even in their sport movement, we tend to think of speaking to the athlete in a “do this” manner. In other words, we tend to look at coaching as a “push your hips back,” “chest out,” “knees up,” “stay tall,” or “brace your core” type of role. These represent “internal cues,” a method of coaching by directing attention to a body part or a position to achieve. In sport skill coaching specifically, it’s common to see coaches tell athletes to put their limbs in a particular position that is deemed “good.” This is often based on what high-level performers do or, in a less favorable case, what the coach was originally instructed to do when they were an athlete.
Many coaches are aware of the implications of these “internal” cues versus “external” cues (external relate to things that exist outside of the human body, such as the ground, sport implements, or even the space around an athlete.) Internal cues can result in more force output in a specific joint or muscle group, but result in a lower overall performance because the increased force output in one joint comes at the expense of timing and harmony of the system. Internal cues have higher muscle EMG readings, but lower performance outputs1. In other words, this cueing system draws muscle that doesn’t need to be there into a movement.An ‘internal’ cueing system draws muscle that doesn’t need to be there into a movement, says @JustFlySports. Click To Tweet
In the weight room, we get this a lot, such as continually telling athletes to “brace” things—their abs, core, or trunk. The thing is, how fast could you run a 40-yard dash while consciously “bracing your core”? (I first heard this idea from Cal Deitz.) The answer is not very fast; you’d be laden with un-needed co-contractions of muscle.
The same applies to any sport skill. Why? Among other things, when you consciously or volitionally brace anything, there are muscles that are “on” when they shouldn’t be. The more internal cues you put into the system, the more muscles that end up being “on” when they shouldn’t be, and this becomes a mentality. Even in the weight room, where heavy loads are lifted and safety is crucial, we still want to be mindful of the effect of every internal cue given that turns on “extra” muscles that go above and beyond the brain’s natural motor program.
“Pre-programming” is an idea that can refer to coaching an athlete to cognitively place a limb somewhere in preparation for force application. One of the best and most apparent examples of this comes from the world of swimming, watching athletes do a stroke such as the butterfly. A pre-programmed athlete will, as soon as their hands leave the water, steer the hands in preparation for water impact. A fluid athlete’s hands will spiral naturally in the air in preparation.
You can see this show up in a myriad of track sprint drills—athletes who get their knees high and exaggerate their arm action for every movement or do a stiff hip-to-pocket pattern. The problem is that these athletes are rarely the fastest. The fastest athlete is the one who looks kind of “lazy” while warming up. Take Usain Bolt in his warm-ups (see 1:03 when Bolt actually starts his warm-up running): Most coaches would deem him lazy, or not deliberate, but a close eye (Adarian Barr, in particular) can see exactly how his warm-up shows up in his running style. These athletes often rehearse how they are going to run fluidly and unconsciously.Consider every positional cue given to athletes in a dynamic running context before saying it, says @JustFlySports. Click To Tweet
In this regard, coaches should very seriously consider every positional cue given to athletes in a dynamic running or sport cue context before saying it. On the flip side, I am in favor of internal cues for the sake of isometric work since they don’t have a poor impact on a dynamic motor pattern.
Don’t Look to ‘Specific Lifts,’ Look for Specific Movement Patterns
We all hold our own particular views on barbell training that tries to be “specific” to a sport movement, the biggest commonality being things that try to transfer specifically to acceleration or sprinting. At the higher levels of any skill performance, strength is very specific. Parallel squats won’t help anyone improve their top-end sprinting speed, but Alex Natera’s plantar flexion iso-pushes can have a beneficial impact.
Outside of isometric work (which is some of the most beneficial work you can do in the weight room regardless of the sport skill being trained, due to minimizing the interference of poor execution patterns while being able to produce a very high RFD at specific joint angles), things that are “specific” can really take away from the ability to do actual sport skills. This is the same paradigm that all other barbell work can take away from it by sustaining bracing, pre-programmed, and segmented movement patterns.
Take an athlete who tends to tense their jaw and fists while running and moving. Do you think that having them do a single leg clean with a step-up to a box finish is going to help or hurt the extremity-tensing movement paradigm? (This isn’t even taking into consideration the timing of the push mechanism in the clean itself relative to where the push happens in sprinting.) Will this help the athlete or just reinforce their tendency to over-muscle things?When it comes to everything done in the weight room—again, the pattern is king, says @JustFlySports. Click To Tweet
When it comes to everything done in the weight room, again, the pattern is king. I would much rather have athletes do bodyweight isometrics and then basic movements like a Russian lunge with good body control, position, and patterning, before even thinking of anything else. I do truly enjoy specific isometric work, and speaking from a perspective of transfer, these movements are the first place I would go once a good pattern is established.
Superset Barbell Work with Dynamic Work
Everything is a poison and a medicine. The key with barbell training and athletes is to give them just enough medicine each time they are in the gym to benefit and minimize the effects of the poison. Just take Dr. Bondarchuk’s ideas on lifting in the submaximal strength ranges—how it maximizes the benefits of the movement while minimizing the risks.
Besides having a coach’s eye for athlete movement skills, the simple act of inserting dynamic movement with heavier strength work helps the body to get out of a sustained contraction mode and works strength into the “contraction-relaxation” or “static-spring” paradigm of sprinting and jumping. French contrast is the epitome of this type of work, and thousands of coaches have found inherent success in improving athletic power production this way.
I look at the work of Paul Venner in his study2of the effect that mixing weightlifting in with batting practice has on bat speed versus doing hitting practice and then lifting. Mixing the work results in a more robust motor program than simply hitting and then going to lift. The brain likes variable programs and puzzles to solve and the fatigue and/or potentiation from strength training gives plenty of room to work with in this regard. The novelty factor is excellent here too, and those familiar with Derek Evely’s anecdotes on how effective simply changing the structure of a program is on athletic results can relate.
I think beyond the better motor pattern, there can also exist the simple effect of alternating “contraction” work with “static-spring” work inherent in sport, and routinely going back to the sport movement to avoid athletic patterning with excess tension and co-contractions. Paul Cater of the Alpha Project has taken this in his own direction, not only in training constructs like “deadlifts and dingers” (deadlifts and batting practice in a complex), but also things like taking breaks between lift sets to throw darts at a dartboard or putt a golf ball. Can you go from “sympathetic to parasympathetic” easily and effectively, as well as achieving the body control and relaxation necessary to succeed in the spaces “in between” lifting sets?
Utilize High-Velocity Proprioceptive Exercises and Randomize This Work (and Practice at the Speed You Will Play)
One thing I’ve seen from coaching greats such as Jay Schroeder, Marv Marinovich, and, recently, Rafael Maldonado, is a priority on the use of high-velocity exercises with a proprioceptive demand (i.e., the ability to control limbs in space via high-velocity bodyweight or lightly weighted movements that put athletes in a better place to apply impact to the ground, sport implements, or a competitor). A Russian lunge is one of the simplest possible examples of this movement, where an athlete simply jumps from a lunge position into an airborne reversal.
Checking for how the athlete handles this on the levels of posture and position, speed, breathing, and movement patterning is key. Athletes who can squat the house, but are terrible at things like this, aren’t resilient or able to use their force appropriately. For a simple example of this, we can take the fluid performance of a Russian lunge (see Dr. Tommy John Jr. perform this at :46) and the pre-programmed performance of it that is accentuated by a mechanical and pre-determined arm action.
Marv Marinovich brought to the training world a more free-flowing version of this with physioball work that resulted in an even higher proprioceptive demand. To do this work well, the ability of the athlete to relax muscles and control limbs in space is a priority. In my experience, regardless of maximal strength levels, athletes who are great in their sport tend to be great at these exercises.Athletes who are great in their sport tend to be great at high-velocity #proprioceptive exercises, says @JustFlySports. Click To Tweet
To take this work to another level, introducing spontaneous commands or outcomes is highly effective in not only helping athletes to not get stuck in a single movement pattern and “bear down” into it with lots of excess tension, but it also mimics the spontaneity of sport. Strength training purists will scoff at an elite player who likes to do work on balance discs. However, if introducing elements where they have to work hard to control limbs in space is motivating to that particular athlete, and it can replicate at least the chaotic nature of sport mentally, is it really all that bad for an athlete who already meets the physical strength and armor standards for their level of play?
Examples of spontaneity in movement can be things like calling “full,” “half,” or “quarter” reps on movements, or instant reverses and changes of direction. For example, while doing a hex bar deadlift, you could call “full” or “half” reps where an athlete had to instantly respond to the command and perform either a rep to the knees, or to full standing from the floor. You can apply this idea to virtually any training scenario. “Reverses” work well with movements that prioritize twisting movements and the transverse plane.
Watch What Happens During Fatigue or Cognitive Challenge
One “element of power” I saw written on the wall at IMS Academy (an MMA and kick-boxing gym in Santa Cruz) was “breath-endurance.” To me, this refers to the ability of an athlete to keep a proper breath pattern in the midst of fatigue, cognitive challenge (think a new situation where the player must outwit the defense), or pressure (game is on the line). A good coach watches players in action to determine tendencies in particular situations, and then tries to emulate these conditions in practice if possible. Marv and Gary Marinovich famously trained fighter BJ Penn, one of the most untouchable fighters ever in his prime, and one of the first things they did was put a heart rate monitor on BJ while he fought. The movements that caused his heart rate to skyrocket were the ones that they trained the most.
It is always interesting to me how, in many games, the first three quarters of play seems to be a bit of a formality (especially in the NBA, but don’t get me started on that) and then the last quarter of the game is what really counts. I don’t think that this should be the case at all, but some teams have an ability to just “know how to win,” and the ability of a good coach to understand all methods that can prepare players for these situations based on their individual responses is invaluable. For the physical preparation coach, there are obviously specifics that can’t be trained, but from a physical preparation sense, it’s important to do what we can in our observation and implementation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic physical responses that happen in the midst of fatigue and mental stress.
Taking on Movement Coaching
Physical preparation is a multidisciplinary field, and there are many elements of helping athletes from a qualitative and quantitative perspective. In getting to the “art” of coaching—one where a coach can grow in the skill of observing the nuances of athletes and the distinguishing factors of success from a movement perspective— I believe that this list is a good starting point. If nothing else, starting to watch the ability of athletes to contract and relax muscles appropriately in space while holding position and maintaining breathing patterns will provide a good armament of better movement ideals.
1. Wulf, Gabriele, et al. “Increased Jump Height and Reduced EMG Activity with an External Focus.” Human Movement Science, 2010; 29(3): 440–448. doi:10.1016/j.humov.2009.11.008.
2. Venner, Paul., Theis, Nicola., Goodwin, John. “Effects of Variable Local Fatigue and Potentiation Within a Constraints-Led Approach on Skill Development in Elite Youth Baseball Hitting.” Msc Strength & Conditioning, School of Sport, Health and Applied Science, St. Mary’s University Twickenham. 2016.